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Nov. 16, 2012
CONTACT: K. E. Schwab

Native American storyteller recalls "Raccoon's Last Race"

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Joseph Bruchac, a member of the Abenacki Native American tribe and prolific author, entered Slippery Rock University's Smith Student Center theater-in-the-round Monday playing a pekowogan, a Native American flute, and immediately silenced the audience - little children and adults alike.

He used the "hollow branch you blow through" - pekowogan - to set the mood for his informative and detailed storytelling. The instrument, played like a clarinet, provides the sound so often heard in movies to establish a quiet, yet distantly haunting, background sound.

Bruchac, who has written more than 60 books about the indigenous American culture, including "Code Talker," was among those presenting at SRU's annual Native American Celebration offered in conjunction with the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center based near Pittsburgh.

Living in the Adirondack Mountain foothills in Greenfield Center, N.Y., close to his native roots, Bruchac told the audience he could trace his background to Abenacki, Slovak and English ancestors. He and his family continue to work to preserve the Abenacki culture, language and traditional native skills, such as performing traditional and contemporary music.

The audience sat in quiet attention as he used various voices, some soft and comic, others strong and bold, to tell the story from his book "Raccoon's Last Race' that traces in Native American lore how the raccoon came to look at is does. To emphasize the history of storytelling for Native Americans, Bruchac took 40-seconds to begin his presentation with one big breath before saying, "It was a 'lllllloooooooooooo------nnnnnggggggggg time ago." Quickly he had the children's focused attention.

He said the raccoon was once a much larger animal and very fast. He told of one raccoon, "named 'Azban,' who was so fast he would challenge other animals to races. He raced deer - and he always won. He raced bear - and he always won, but he was conceited."

The author went on to tell of the raccoon's pride and gloating, about his running ability and how those characteristics eventually led to his downfall - and current appearance - after racing and losing to a very large rock at the top of the mountain.

Bruchac explained how adults, and in particular Native Americans, in rearing their children, often try to make a point by telling stories rather than delivering lectures about a particular issue. He used the raccoon story to illustrate his point.

Bruchac earned his bachelor of arts degree from Cornell University, his master of arts in literature and creative writing from Syracuse University and his doctorate in comparative literature from the Union Institute of Ohio. He has directed programs for Skidmore College inside a maximum-security prison. He and his late wife founded the Greenfield Review Literary Center and the Greenfield Review Press.

His award-winning works include "Songs from this Earth on Turtle's Back, Breaking Silence," which earned the American Book Award, and "Returning the Gift." His poems, articles and stories have appeared in more than 500 publications.

His awards include, the American Book Award for "Breaking Silence"; Horn Book honor for "The Boy Who Lived with the Bears"; Scientific American Children's Book Award for "The Story of the Milky Way," along with the Cherokee Nation Prose Award, Hope S. Dean Award for Notable Achievement in Children's Literature, 2005 Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, 2001 Parents Guide to Children's Media Award for "Skeleton Man" and a host of others. Bruchak has performed extensively, including at the British Storytelling Festival and the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tenn.

In addition to Bruchac's presentation, members of the Three Rivers Council, dressed in handmade Native American regalia, presented a variety of traditional dances throughout the day, including those once used before proceeding on hunting expeditions. Some of the dances involved the audience, including the Snake Dance, in which everyone joined hands and were led throughout the ballroom and outside lobby. The dances were accompanied by drumming provided by participating council members.

Miguel Sague, who traces his ancestry to the Taino Native Americans who were first encountered by Christopher Columbus, opened the program by working to dispel the stereotype of Native Americans.

Dressed entirely in white regalia, indicative of his heritage, Sague told the audience that Native Americans have existed in North and South American for more than 10,000 years.

"There were many individual groups. Each group had its own language, its own customs, clothes and traditions. They were not all one people. Native Americans from South American were very different from those who lived in what is now called the 'American Plains," he said. "Still they were all Native Americans."

SRU traditionally honors Native Americans each year with a program designed to exhibit their culture, customs, language, storytelling, dance and music.

Rachella Permenter, professor of English, Pamela Soeder, professor of elementary education and early childhood, and Frederick White, associate professor of English, organize the celebration day.

A number of Native American artifacts were displayed, including posters, jewelry and crafts. The crafts table allowed children to join in learning to use beads and twine to create artworks.

The Three Rivers Council was created in 1969 to help regional residents with a need to maintain their sense of "Indian-ness" recapture their roots and become more conscious of their rights as Native Americans. The council operates from offices in Dorseyville, Indiana Township.

Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.